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Applet by Fabio Ciucci

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Victorian Halloween

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Halloween's origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The
Celts,who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United
Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This
day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark,
cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts
believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds
of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31, they
celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned
to earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that
the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or
Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely
dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important
source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

The American tradition of "trick-or-treating" probably dates back to the early
All Souls' Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would
beg for food and families would give them pastries called "soul cakes" in return
for their promise to pray for the family's dead relatives. The distribution of
soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice
of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to
as "going a-souling" was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses
in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money.

The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots.
Hundreds of years ago, winter was an uncertain and frightening time. Food supplies
often ran low and, for the many people afraid of the dark, the short days of winter
were full of constant worry. On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back
to the earthly world, people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left
their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when
they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow
spirits. On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place
bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from entering

In Ireland, where Halloween originated, the day is still celebrated much
as it is in the United States. In rural areas, bonfires are lit as they
were in the days of the Celts, and all over the country, children get
dressed up in costumes and spend the evening "trick-or-treating" in their
neighborhoods. After trick-or-treating, most people attend parties with
neighbors and friends. At the parties, many games are played, including
"snap-apple," a game in which an apple on a string is tied to a doorframe
or tree and players attempt to bite the hanging apple. In addition to bobbing
for apples, parents often arrange treasure hunts, with candy or pastries as
the "treasure." The Irish also play a card game where cards are laid face
down on a table with candy or coins underneath them. When a child
chooses a card, he receives whatever prize is found below it.

A traditional food eaten on Halloween is barnbrack, a kind of fruitcake that
can be bought in stores or baked at home. A muslin-wrapped treat is baked
inside the cake that, it is said, can foretell the eater's future. If a ring
is found, it means that the person will soon be wed; a piece of straw means
that a prosperous year is on its way. Children are also known to play tricks
on their neighbors, such as "knock-a-dolly," a prank in which children knock
on the doors of their neighbors, but run away before the door is opened.

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